Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A System of Belief

It amazes me, as I read political forums, social media, and comment sections across the Internet just how easily many people purport to navigate the issues of the day. Some experts spend their whole lives studying one subject area: one country perhaps, or a single era of history, but anyone with a halfway reliable WiFi connection and a keyboard can now comment on an astoundingly wide array of topics at any given time, regardless of their qualifications or even the depth of their basic knowledge. Maybe last week it was amateur commentary on immigration reform, and this week a quick intellectual pivot to provide your opinion on the merits of a US incursion in Syria. Never before have there been so many readily available outlets for unfiltered and in some cases meritless opinions than in the year 2013.  

Why is this the case? Why do we so rarely hear that refreshingly candid phrase, "I don't know enough about that to form an opinion?" Because belief has now largely replaced knowledge as the leading edge of debate in this country.

No longer do we expect people to operate from the same basis of core facts, no longer do we expect people to exert the intellectual energy necessary to have an informed opinion. This became clear to me recently when, after talking to someone about healthcare policy and climate change, it was obvious that while they had opinions about those two things, they were not in any way based on anything beyond "belief." And what I mean when I say that is, they believed that their health insurance premiums would go up as a result of Obamacare, but their argument was not factual and evidence-based, but rather something they simply believed would happen. Asked "why do you think that would happen?," their answer was little more than, "I don't know, it is what I believe." Whether the belief turns out to be right or wrong, it is no way for a vast populace to debate important policy decisions.

And when someone argues from a standpoint of uninformed belief, they tend to argue from defensive emotion, presumably afraid to have their lack of depth exposed and that is how we wind up with the types of highly personal, highly offensive, close-minded policy debates so evident on social media, comment sections, and in Congress. We are now largely governed, personally and politically, by gut-feeling.  

As a serious student of history, I am astounded at the time that many of our political leaders from days gone by put into intellectual discovery. In a world devoid of television, telephones, and the Internet, books and newspapers were a legitimate way of keeping oneself entertained; imagine that for a moment, entertaining oneself with intellectual exercise.

It would be wrong to suggest that becoming an informed member of society doesn't take time and commitment, it most certainly does. It is also true that arguing based on little more than what you "believe" reflects a dangerous intellectual laziness that, writ large, produces a pronounced societal stasis; even with compelling, evidence-based arguments, people can simply reject even the most sound rationale because it isn't what they believe to be true. And as a society, it appears as though we have legitimized that concept, made it okay to simply react.

In the 19th century, many people believed that blacks and American Indians were an inferior species, in the 15th century, nearly everyone believed the world was flat, in the early 20th century, many people believed that eugenics was a good idea. Believing something, no matter how strongly, doesn't make it so.   


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